Chinese music lessons

As I sit in my study in our flat in East Lake Garden in the evening I can usually hear someone practising western music, usually on the piano, but sometimes on the clarinet. The strangest experience for me is the daily sound from Upper Neighbour’s flat – crystal clear through the inadequately insulated ceiling – of piano practice. I don’t know who is practising – grandma, granddad, mother or son (aged about 5) – but ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ or ‘The Ash Tree’ comes through loud and clear. So far whoever it is can only play with one hand. I am eagerly waiting for the left hand to join in.
As the daughter of a piano teacher, I feel I am back in my childhood home, except that I don’t hear my mother shouting out ‘F sharp’, as she frequently did to me or other pupils who were not quite up to scratch. Learning to play the piano in the western style is endemic on the compound. There are at least three music tuition shops within walking distance of our flat, where children can go to learn. On Saturday mornings a steady stream of small children and their parents go to and fro for lessons. As this is China, there is no privacy, and you can peer in and watch the poor infants struggling through their arpeggios.
Despite the apparent hunger for learning to play a western classical instrument, you rarely hear classical music being played or enjoyed for its own sake. It may be that people are walking around listening to Mozart on their headsets, but somehow I doubt it. Learning classical piano seems to be just one more way in which Chinese parents stress out their children. The other day at a Christmas party, I sat next to an earnest young Chinese man who told me very seriously that his seven year old daughter was ‘out of control’. I enquired further – it turned out she was simply reluctant to do her daily three hours of homework and her piano practice, and then there was the problem of looking after the pet rabbit (she didn’t want to).
On the way to Hong Kong, where we spent Christmas, I read in the South China Morning Post of a clever ruse to make children perform even better at school. A teacher divided the class into 10 groups. After a test, the bottom two groups were fined 10 yuan each (about £1) and this money was given as a reward to the top two groups. Perhaps my Chinese dinner companion should consider something similar to exert parental control.
Hong Kong’s many plush shopping malls were alive with Christmas cheer – huge sparkling trees, snowflakes and lights and of course the canned music. It seems that Hong Kongers dream constantly of a white Christmas, despite the fact that the temperature is around 15 degrees centigrade and the weather was nice enough for us to eat lunch on Christmas Eve outside on the beach. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ was another favourite – sung with great gusto by the Hong Kong Children’s Choir at their annual televised Christmas Concert – complete with false snow.
Music in public places is actually a fascinating phenomenon in China proper. Walking in an urban park, you frequently come across groups of older musicians playing and singing Beijing Opera or other traditional Chinese music, younger people doing karaoke and older men and women with a radio in their hand which is blaring out Chinese recorded music. On our recent trip to Nanjing we came across a group of 6 little girls, aged between about 6 and 12, all dressed in identical pastel outfits with the same hair does and sitting at zithers (guqin) set out at the side of the street. They played an impossibly complicated programme for many minutes with great gusto, in front of an audience of adoring mums and dads.
I’ve recently become aware of a group of older women at East Lake, just visible from our kitchen window, who exercise to music in the middle of the morning, wrapped up in their down jackets against the cold. Their music tape includes a kind of rap version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ – the rhythm allows them to shake their hands and feet with great energy. I notice that the older men stand to the side in their own group, not moving, but just shooting the breeze. Obviously the music just doesn’t do it for them.


Use and abuse of statistics?

For the last couple of weeks all talk has been of pollution levels and what kind of masks to buy. We now have a stack of masks stored beside our bicycle helmets – ready for action, although we somewhat doubt their efficacy. Metro supermarket spotted the market potential and quickly set up displays of two or three different makes.   Pollution has been so bad in Ningbo that it literally went off the scale. The Air Quality Index for China says that 300+ is severely polluted; one day last week here it was 500! A Dickensian pall of smog hung over the city and the suburbs. We woke with dry throats and coughs. When the pollution reaches a particular level of intensity, local government officials decree that school children should not be allowed outside. A fellow student, who coaches the UNNC tennis team, was instructed to cancel training sessions. Families with babies and small children on campus did not leave their apartments for several days.

What caused the pollution? It was certainly worse than anything we experienced last year. It seems to have happened because of a prolonged period of very dry, mild and still weather. There had been no rain since the floods in October and the pollution from cars and local industry and power plants just built up. What made it go away? For the last three days it has rained solidly and the air has literally been washed clean. Now my AQI app tells me that air quality is excellent, but could it flood again?

Another set of measurements that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks has been the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) education scores. ‘China’ came top of the league in maths and science, and western countries were generally humiliated by East Asia. However, these figures should be treated extremely warily. For a start, ‘China’ actually meant Shanghai; schools representing 2% of the population were entered for the tests. Shanghai is the wealthiest city in China. It is the equivalent of the UK only entering children from the three richest London boroughs, or just from Surrey. China refused to use statistics from the whole of the country, not surprisingly, given the huge inequalities experienced in rural provinces, especially those with ethnic minority populations, where many children don’t even complete the nine years of compulsory schooling.

This is not to say that many Chinese young people are not a lot better at maths and science than their western counterparts – colleagues at UNNC tell me this is clearly the case. But other cultural factors have to be taken into account. I’ve just read a book about Chinese education with the title ‘Governing Education Desire’. It took me quite a while to understand what the title meant. The author (Kipnis) studies the school system in Shandong province, exploring its extraordinary success. The key factor is parental hunger for education for their child. The government has to control this desire for an academic education. It is parents who demand 16 hour school days for their adolescents at huge boarding schools of at least 5,000 students, or who pack off their three year olds to boarding kindergartens. Even where there is little hope that a child will pass the university entrance exams, their parents still want them to try and will not agree to them going to the excellent, new vocational schools in the province.

Ironically, the result is a country with growing graduate unemployment and skills shortages in vital areas. We know this just from walking down the road and seeing the poor quality of buildings, or looking around our apartment at the terrible finishing or the way the shower fixture is falling off the wall. On the other hand, the parental desire for education, combined with an approach to teaching which focuses ruthlessly on test preparation clearly leads to good PISA scores!

One of the most interesting aspects of Kipnis’s book concerned the concept of what he calls ‘literary masculinity’. Historically, China has valued scholarship among men. Success in exams based on classical scholarship of literary texts allowed men to succeed in the local and national exams and to become mandarins. This tradition continues and boys strive to succeed academically at school, rather than to become sports stars or celebrities. Apparently, the CCP has a policy to encourage its most senior members to get PhDs, although there have been some interesting cases of fraudulent qualifications as a result.

Living here has taught me the extent to which attitudes towards education are culturally constructed. I see it every week in my Mandarin classes, where the western students question the teacher and kick against the rigour needed to pass the exam. It is also interesting to listen to parents in mixed marriages. Should their child be educated here or should they leave and go to the west? What will the emotional strain be of getting through the Chinese system? On the other hand, will they lack discipline and rigour if they are educated in the west? An interesting gloss on this dilemma is the way in which rich CCP members increasingly educate their children abroad. It seems to be that the most senior officials lack confidence in their own system, despite those PISA scores.   





Histories in Nanjing

Nanjing plays a central role in various narratives of Chinese national identity and we spent a rewarding weekend trying to decode some of them. The city – or rather a British ship moored in the Yangtse river on which it is built – was where the Qing Emperor was forced to sign the first of the ‘unequal treaties’ in 1842, which began the ‘century of humiliation’. The worst of these humiliations being the loss of Hong Kong and the opening up of four other treaty ports, including Ningbo.

The ‘Exhibition of the signing of the unequal Treaty of Nanjing’ was on our ‘to visit’ list, and on Sunday morning, after a pleasant walk in autumnal sunshine along the remaining part of the city wall – once 35 kilometres long – we set off in a taxi to find it. The good-natured taxi driver told me he had never heard of the place, although after a few phone calls, he ascertained that he knew the temple site where the exhibition seemed to be located. We were driven a few miles out to the remotest north western part of the city, just the other side of another piece of the wall.
City Wall
The exhibition turned out to be in a few drab back rooms of a Buddhist temple and consisted of a hundred or so photographs and reproductions of the events leading to the Nanjing treaty and China’s ‘semi-colonialism and feudalism’. The final room was filled with the triumphal end of the story – i.e. Mrs Thatcher sitting with Deng Xiaoping as they negotiated the return of Hong Kong and pictures of the celebrations. There were no other visitors.

The lack of interest was in sharp contrast to our experience the previous day, when we went to the very popular ‘Memorial to the Nanjing Massacre’. This is a combination of a museum, burial ground and peace park. It commemorates the sacking of Nanjing by the Japanese in 1937 and ever since our visit to Nagasaki a couple of months ago we had wanted to experience the Chinese version of dark tourism. Our visit coincided with the raised tension between China and Japan over the Daiyu/Senkaku Islands due to the Chinese expansion of their air defence zone. The contents of the museum make it crystal clear why the tension continues to exist.
Massacre museum
In many ways, the Chinese visitor site was much bolder and hard-hitting than the atomic bomb museum. The estimated number of dead – 300,000 victims – is emblazoned in huge numbers and letters in many languages in the first huge, grey courtyard. The museum itself is a long walk through black and white photos and captions detailing the horror of the attack and its aftermath of slaughter and rape. As in Nagasaki, nothing is left out and the tragedy is heightened through the use of individual testimonies. Chinese museums often include tableaux of particular incidents, but the only one here was at the end with an old Japanese man seated on a mat apparently trying to explain to a Chinese woman why the soldiers behaved with such barbarity.

One of the only redeeming actions seemed to be that a few American missionaries and German factory owners sheltered many thousands of refugees and prevented their murder. This seemed ironic in the light of the ‘century of humiliation’ narrative in the other museum, which gave no positive role to Europeans or Americans. The final rooms of the ‘Massacre’ site were devoted to the defeat of the Japanese, although as far as I could see no mention was made of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. According to this narrative, it was the Chinese army that was victorious.

After the ‘War against Japan’ China lapsed into civil war which ended with the victory of the Communists over the Nationalists in 1949. In every museum or historical site which we have visited in China so far, the glorious victory of the CCP and the establishment of the PRC have loomed large. In Nanjing the narrative is slightly more nuanced. The city was the capital of the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai Chek, which is why the Japanese attacked it. It was also once an imperial capital, and the site of the old palace and garden was used as the Presidential Palace by the Nationalists. Now a museum, it was full of photographs of the Nationalist regime, with almost no reference to their defeat and flight to Taiwan.

One of the most extravagant and frequently visited sites in Nanjing is the Mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen, known as the ‘Father of China’ because he led the movement which deposed the last Qing Emperor. He set up the Nationalist party and since 1912 has been the only person in China to be elected democratically, although he couldn’t maintain power. The Mausoleum is set on a hillside outside the city in a beautiful park. It is a curious combination – Fascism meets Buddhism. You climb up hundreds of steps to a temple like structure over a socialist-realist sculpture of the man himself and maybe you dream of what might have been if he had held onto power.

But Nanjing is not only about history. Although it has successfully maintained some of its historic monuments and many pleasant tree-lined streets, it is now a thriving, modern Chinese city with a subway system and gleaming skyscrapers. We indulged our inner capitalists to stay in the Intercontinental – all 80 storeys of it. There were adverts everywhere for a quintessentially modern event – the Olympic Youth Games in 2014. One public square even had a count-down monitor to get you in the mood. The Treaty of Nanjing seemed a long way away; now the city is happy to welcome ‘foreign devils.’
Intercontinental hotel